After Johnny Fox helped pull the swimmer from the ocean, he watched the rest of the rescue unfold on the sand.
He watched strangers like him, who rushed to try and save the man from Lincoln that June Sunday on a remote beach on Hawaii’s Big Island.
It was a day before Jonathan Werner was due to stand on another beach, consecrating the forever love of his friends.
A 37-year-old supervisor at the Nebraska Department of Labor with an online ministry certificate, ready to officiate at his second service.
A gentle spirit with a sly sense of humor who loved long walks and camping and travel, “Jeopardy” and Scrabble and Legos and the nieces and nephews he called his “niblings.”
A beloved son and brother and friend.
A guy on a dream trip with his girlfriend, each day a magical adventure.
Fox didn’t know that then.
He didn’t know the blonde woman who knelt beside Werner, begging him to stay, her mouth over his, filling his lungs with her breath, cradling him on the sand when everyone had done everything they could.
He didn’t know about their long-awaited vacation, their last morning hiking down the canyon to this beach, where kings and queens came to die and be buried. Their lunch of grocery store fried chicken and cheap beer, the fog that rolled in as they walked, Werner’s favorite weather.
But that night, after news reports confirmed the tourist’s death, he started searching and found a Facebook page.
He saw a man filled with life.
He saw him smiling, a blonde woman at his side.
He began to type.
Fox is a clinical social worker who made a temporary move from Virginia to Hawaii 12 years ago and never left. A husband and father who once worked in hospice and knew the important work of grief.
He felt grief for this stranger.
“I know you’re supposed to get stuff out,” Fox said last week. “It sounds kind of morbid, but I knew I could share something with this person who passed away.”
He figured the Facebook account for Jonathan Werner was shut down, so he didn’t stop to think or edit.
“I thought I could pour my heart out and no one would see it.”
He wrote a private message to the dead man. He told him he’d heard the screams for help and raced toward the water, another man running beside him.
We tried our hardest to save you. I wanted you to know that. We were all strangers to you and to each other. I’m sorry we couldn’t do more.
He wrote about the sorrow on the island in the wake of his death: I’m not sure if this helps at all. But you are in the thoughts and prayers of everyone in Hawaii. Much aloha.
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Werner’s family did see that message.
And Carla McCullough, the woman on the beach, saw it, too. She saw a second message Fox sent after discovering her name, offering his condolences, offering to help.
The connection remains between them.
They talked for more than an hour, McCullough said. They talked about the pull of the tide that day and Werner’s friend from home, who was at his side, holding him up when Fox arrived.
They talked about death and how people die, about how Werner had died and the comfort in the day’s earlier happiness and beauty.
“I got out my notepad and my pen and I wrote down so many things,” she said, knowing she’d have a hard time remembering later.
That day is a blur of images and memories. She knows two EMTs and a nurse were there to help give CPR and that swimmers stood at a distance, forming a circle while they waited for paramedics.
“In my mind it was a dozen people. I felt like they were holding witness or praying.”
Later, as she held Werner in the sand, someone placed a lei around her neck.
Rescue workers waited until she was ready before lifting the body to the ambulance for the ride to the hospital.
“That day, I didn’t think to ask anyone’s name,” she said. “When Johnny Fox reached out, now I knew a name.”
In the weeks since, more messages from strangers arrived from Hawaii offering sympathy and support both to McCullough and to Werner’s parents, Mary and Terry. Swimmers who’d witnessed or helped or prayed.
“We have a bond," McCullough said. “From going through this sacred thing together.”
The blonde woman from the beach is Facebook friends with a few of them now. She hears from Fox nearly every week.
In August, Werner’s parents wrote a letter to the island newspaper. They expressed their gratitude and shared their pain.
We will grieve for our son for the rest of our lives and will always miss his humor, boldness and compassion. We will also never forget that in the last moments of his life, he was with the person he loved most in the world, at a holy and breathtakingly beautiful place where brave heroes surrounded him, trying their best to keep him here on Earth …
On the day of their son’s memorial service, a photo showed up on the Facebook page created in his memory: White rocks in the black sand of a Hawaiian beach.
The rocks wash up to the shore, Johnny Fox explained. And on a trip to the beach with his young son, they’d gathered them, arranging the smooth stones into two letters: J and W.
He shared the image with those who mourned in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“Almost like a greeting card from Hawaii,” said the man who ran into the waves that June Sunday, praying for another ending to this story.
“I wanted to show we’re still here for you. We’re still here.”